- In the Great Maelstrom: Conservatives in Post–Civil War South Carolina
They were supposed to go away, the conservatives. Democracy, equal rights, liberality, and even (on some accounts) secularism were supposed to become the American norm. Tories, Federalists, reactionaries, fundamentalists, and their ilk were expected to melt away. For a moment, after the New Deal and Fair Deal, liberals imagined that the thaw had irreversibly happened. In 1955 Louis Hartz assured us that the liberal tradition in America was not only the mainstream then, but had been so in earlier days, and that conservatism had been (and so would always be) an aberration. As a historian and a prophet, Hartz proved wrong.
Charles Holden helps in understanding the history, if not the miscarried prophecy, by writing about the transition in South Carolinian conservative thought from the late antebellum period to the 1940s. He takes four figures from successive generations. Frederick Porcher (1809-1888) was a planter and professor at the College of Charleston who defended slavery, mistrusted the idea of progress, criticized democracy and capitalism, scorned Reconstruction, and wrote memoirs of lapidary grace. Edward McCrady Jr. (1833-1903) was a Charleston lawyer, Confederate officer, Redeemer paramilitary leader, and political activist who worked in the late nineteenth century to exclude blacks and poor whites from the franchise, mostly by devising in 1880 the so-called "Eight-Box Law," which "stipulated that a voter needed to be able to read the names of the candidates and offices in order to place the ballots in the corresponding ballot boxes" (54). Theodore D. Jervey, Jr. (b. 1859) was likewise a Charleston lawyer, but also a journalist, historian, and novelist, who was most notable for arguing a sympathy between the racial situation of white South Carolinians and South African Boers. William Watts Ball (1868-1952) was editor of the Charleston News and Courier, a critic of socialism and the New Deal, a man who was willing to accept the Prussian label of "junker," and the author of The State That Forgot: South Carolina's Surrender to Democracy (1932), an elegy for the lowcountry aristocracy. [End Page 227]
It is surprising how candid the anti-democratic ideology remained, for that is not the way of modern American conservatism, which invariably speaks the language of democracy while often practicing the politics of economic elitism. Holden quotes Vilfredo Pareto on the nature of conservatism, to the effect that elite power is marked by a "slow and continuous transformation. It flows on like a river, never being today what it was yesterday" (7). (Another Italian, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, famously said it better in The Leopard: "To stay the same, things must change.") One takes the broad point, but it may be that "transformation" overstates the movement from 1850 to 1950, for it is hard to see that, apart from accepting the death of slavery, Ball was much removed from Porcher. No doubt, as Pareto suggests, the enemies kept changing their shape. Black Republicans before the war, black Republicans after it, labor unions, Communists, Yankee tourists, Franklin Roosevelt, greasy tenant farmers, uppity negroes, they all posed a challenge and prompted a response. Always feelings about class and race intersected, but these conservatives, though they cared about race, cared for it mostly because they cared even more about class. Certainly, their excitabilities were more uniformly occasioned by class challenges, for (from 1877 to the 1940s) they nestled in a Southern and national consensus on race. In truth, their problem was neither the Federal government nor Norman Thomas, but their fellow South Carolinians, especially politicians like Ben Tillman and Strom Thurmond, who saw the issue of class differently and thought racial hierarchy need not disavow a democracy among whites.
This is too brief a book to exhaust the ideological complexities, even of South Carolinian thought, but Holden's exposition of his four thinkers is efficient and useful. It is possible, however, that the issue of conservative power is not best addressed by examining candid ideologists. In the battle of ideas...